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Nong Khai – Thanaleng (Laos) , Thailand´s only International Train in the North

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

© 2010 Frank P. Schneidewind


The travel into Laos has been made easier for all and the victimizing by local transport thugs has been reduced to one spot only. The Friendship bridge connected Nong Khai’s Mekong shore since the 90’s with Laotian territory, but they have added a train service recently.

Thailand’s SRT and Lao Railways operate this together. Length of track between stations in use does not exceed 6.000 meters and covers the stream and that bridge crossing, twice daily in each direction!

 

Thanaleng station has been built for this purpose, the Tuktuk lobby in Laos must have prohibited railroad tracks well into Laos! 

So the rip off starts automatically at the station here, where Tuktuk pilots ferry the foreigners for a stash of Baht, Dollars or Kip to their final destination. A mafia-like organisation controls the access of vehicles strictly and charges 500 Baht “approach fee” to the drivers per vehicle. This is then passed on to the passengers, which have no alternative option from this station in the prairie by the Mekong river! Thanaleng is 30 KM away from Vientiane, public buses are nowhere in sight. The official negotiated fare is 40 or 50 Baht per person, depending on the drop-off in Vientiane. It’s 40 Baht to “Talad Sao Terminal”, the central transportation and bus plaza in the capital.

Expect to pay 100 Baht per Person, the Minibuses (12 seaters) or larger Tuktuks, need to pay off the mafia here as well! This is, believe it or not, a big step forward. Before You paid 40 Baht per person just to get from Nong Khai to the Thai side of the bridge, then 10 or 20 Baht for the transport over it (or hiked with your luggage), then you fell automatically victim to the mafia at the Laotian bridge end, where transport pays “approach fees” as well. The 5.000 Kip (5 Baht) public bus does operate, but they try everything to make you tale a shared taxi or Tuktuk!;)

The trains are fairly new and very clean , which surprised us after the dirty experience on SRT trains to Nong Khai or from there to Bangkok. Windshield wipers, head- and taillights – this train had it all! :)

Louvered blinds can be pulled out of the upper window frame, the windows themselves lower almost completely on demand. Good for us filming bunch.

Timetable:

Nong Khai – Thanaleng 09:30 AM, Thanaleng – Nong Khai 10:30 AM
Nong Khai – Thanaleng 04:00 PM, Thanaleng – Nong Khai 05:00 AM

The timetable and the South-to-North tracks, tell wise travelers to sit on the left, once inside the train both ways – in order to avoid over exposure to the strong sun, the right side of the train faces a merciless sun all the way!

Photo enthusiasts may want to face the sun for the possible reflections on the river during the passage over the bridge.


The station in Laos has one small refreshment kiosk, no food available – only drinks are sold lukewarm! It appears very well kept and is the pivotal point for major smuggling rings. Watch contraband in big sacks being offloaded on the opposite side of the train and disappear out of sight into the prairie on small mopeds with no license plates, within minutes after the trains arrivals from Nong Khai. All customs dudes are busy eyeballing arriving foreigners, filling out their Immigration forms for the needed Visa and stamp in their passports. Nice tables are provided, chairs as well.

Departure times given are loose time frames only, do not travel by train, if you have tight connections to catch in Nong Khai or at Udon Thani Airport. Our train was delayed 30 minutes both ways!

Arrival times in Nong Khai allow well for same-day connections to Bangkok by train on both trains in the evening!

 

SRT – Thailand´s State Railway – 2nd class sleeper non-aircon

Friday, January 29th, 2010

(c) 2010 Frank P. Schneidewind

 

 

Our most recent addition and final chapter to Siampedia’s SRT assessment and report just took place. We ventured from the outskirts of Bangkok to Nong Khai, the Laotian border crossing for a short trip to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Chosen class of service was the still missing 2nd class sleeper, the last possible option, our documentation was still lacking.

Reputation of this class was not inspiring, but after a not so budget friendly new years celebration, we thought that we could handle the heat of the night in a non-AC train.

The tickets were only 487 Baht per person, which is fairly cheap. When the train rolled out of the station, we had only minutes to store our backpacks and the famous red cooler bag. The later was filled with ice and Coke Zero cans for our trip. I would buy my drinks from the on-board service, but their selection is too lousy and does not include my staple juice!

The seats are significantly narrower than in the 2nd class AC trains, but in regular position, they provide some degree of comfort and beat the 3rd class seats (half price!) hands down. The rail cars appear old and way past their prime, but bedsheets and pillow covers, as well as the towel-like blanket were sparkling white and freshly cleaned. The quite boring ride into the night did not provide much scenic views, so we didn’t mind when the attendant started at dusk to fold out the bunks for us to lay down.

We had lower berths booked, for the view and airflow, these windows can be opened, unlike in the AC variety of rail car! After all, it was deep winter in Thailand and the temperatures dropped sharply after the train left the Chaophaya basin near Saraburi and climbed up on the Khorat plateau. Pick a cozy night, because no train in Thailand has heating!

We were happy that we didn’t book Aircon, it was unavailable on this train anyhow. The outside temperature must have been in the lower 20’s (centigrade) and we woke up after a long sleep when the train pulled into Udon Thani, the last big station before our final stop at Nong Khai station.

The general cleanliness within the rail car left room for improvements on a major scale, but the idiotic setup of the interior with their protruding ladders into the aisle is something we haven’t encountered in other trains elsewhere, people needed to bang around with suitcases or backpacks much, due to the limited space available.

Noise levels are high, the wagon’s end doors remain open to allow air flow throughout the train. You quickly regret to have the window open, when the train rolls at it’s slow speed through the prairies in the Isaan provinces. Their slash and burn agricultural tactics produces much stink, haze and ugly ash particles, which are propelled anywhere by thermal side-effects of the large fires. CO² emissions put aside, my mind wanders to the snakes, lizards, butterflies and everything else, that is dying a fiery death on the scorched soil!

Business as usual out here, nobody has the guts to put fighting that on their political agendas. I stopped breathing ash flakes by closing the insect screen slider, but the stink prevailed at times.

Anyhow, I was still tired from the slightly extended New Year’s party in Pattaya 48 hours ago and fell asleep quick…..not dreaming about large fires nationwide that scar the land and pollute a lot. 😀


The luggage racks hold bags safe, suitcases fall occasionally, when the train moves! Thai rail work precision is 3rd world standard and the shakes aren’t for motion sensitive passengers.

Used stock of engines and rail cars with Isaan destinations is not to be found on the priority-list of the SRT – a lot of damage and wear is visible in daylight on the locomotives and the wagons. Maintenance levels can be guessed easily!

The return trip was the most horrible train experience, I had collected on all my Thai rail trips. Lower berths were completely booked out, the upper berth is a joke in with for regular sized people! Only Asians may find comfort in the upper bunks. No wind, no ventilation – if you close your curtain for privacy.

The roof mounted fans circulate only into open bunks and the interior ventilation systems are completely clogged with dirt and dust. The hinge, on which the bunk is mounted, is inches from your body and so full of accumulated dirt, that I spent the entire night sitting in an open door of the wagon (nice breeze!) or wandered around in the train, hoping for that ordeal to end soon. See our video attached for details

 

Worse yet, during my night awake, Melona slept and I kept the bugs near her bunk at bay! Lots of cockroaches nest in the hinge-cover and appear from the vents and cracks. The walls haven’t seen a wipe with soap water for a long time. SRT needs an extermination by professionals badly – the bugs crawl everywhere in this class. I checked the situation in other rail cars and found similar reason for complaints! Never again I will book a ticket here or travel with 2nd class non-aircon as long as this is, what I can get for my money! Sleeping in a bug-infested rail car may endanger your well-being, and that means a lot to me!